This month we successfully implemented our first Geo-Artificial Intelligence (AI) solution called GeoDrone. Merkator and Vliegend.nl started an initiative to combine innovative drone and Geo-AI technologies to recognize birds and nests, instantly georeferencing the objects to facilitate in reducing habitat disturbing activities during the breeding season.

A stunning one million animal and plant species are at risk of extinction due to human activity, was recently reported by UN Committee IPBES. Biodiversity is affected by human population growth, their lifestyles and use of land, causing a lot of damage to the habitats for species. Substantial threats like climate change, intensive agriculture, pollution, overgrazing and invasive alien species are huge problems to solve in the 21st century.

For the past twenty years, the loss in biodiversity is visible in an alarming decline of birds in the Netherlands. Birds are playing a vital role in balancing the ecosystem; they fertilize, pollinate flowers and disperse seeds. Statistics show a reduction of grassland-breeding birds like the Black-tailed Godwit, Lapwing, Oystercatcher and Redshank. These meadow birds are not yet on imminent risk, but studies by environmental research institutes warn that extinction is just a final step in a long degradation process that needs to be halted.

From 2016 on, local Dutch farmer collectives help improve the habitat for birds to breed, feed and rest by carrying out agricultural, nature and landscape management activities. Because most of the grasslands in the Netherlands are maintained through mowing for silage or hay, tractors and other agricultural machinery will make multiple passes; cutting, raking and baling the same area. When this occurs during the breeding season, birds will be scared away, nests and eggs will be destroyed, and offspring will be easy prey for predators.

Organisations like the farmer collective Eemland are mandated by the province to inform and motivate local farmers to attract more birds by submerging low parts of their land and make agreements to postpone mowing grassland-breeding areas in exchange for compensation. By detecting breeding birds and nests as early as possible, collectives can inform the farmers to take necessary measures against disturbing the habitat.

Merkator and Vliegend.nl developed a solid combination of a drone with an optional  RGB or FLIR camera, including specific Geo-AI software for finding birds and nests, as early as possible in the season. With FLIR thermal imagery, it is possible to locate animals during the early morning when the field is still cold, and RGB can give a clear view on the species during the day.

GeoDrone contains an artificial intelligence module for bird-recognition and is developed as a plugin into a geographic information system. Geo-referencing the positions of birds or nests directly in open source QGIS makes it possible to use all standard GIS spatial functions, queries, available local geographic information and export formats.

Besides recognizing birds and nests, it is possible to expand the AI models with options to find other animals and plants, including automated mapping. The combination of using a professional drone with a drone-pilot-specialist and state-of-the-art Geo-AI enhanced software is key in maintaining the meadow birds and biodiversity in the Netherlands.